I am struggling to start writing about my visit to the old RAF Filton. In January 1943, my father picked up a brand-new Bristol Beaufighter from the factory here and flew it to Africa. My guide in April 2015 was Oliver Deardon, a Trustee of the Bristol Aero Collection, and I was touched by his courteous, comprehensive and thoughtful tour of this complex site, personalising it specially for me along the way. “Your father’s Beaufighter,” he said, “Would have come out of the building at the top of the site up there, and been brought down that hill; the street is wide enough, as you can see, to accommodate the aircrafts’ wings. And then it would have gone across the railway tracks, the only instance of a level crossing for aircraft use. That would bring it down here where your father would have received it and finally taken it onto the runway here and taken it way with him.”
In his memoirs, my father wrote: ‘On 7th January, along with ten other crews including Joe Berry and Ian Watson, Ralph and I went by coach to Filton near Bristol to collect a brand new Beaufighter from the factory: no. V8633. It was like taking my old car to a car dealer and then part-exchanging it for a brand new one. I felt sheer delight in flying the plane back to Lyneham. However, the bad weather didn’t allow us to carry out the consumption test on it until January 13th: an all-round trip around the coast from Cornwall to Blackpool and beyond that took 5.05 hours. The results were good: petrol consumption 80 gallons per hour; air miles 2.44 per gallon; range 1,448 miles; and the full endurance of the aircraft could be 7 hours 36 minutes. All very pleasing.’
Now I stood on the side of the runway space where that exciting event in his life took place. Every airfield, I am discovering, has its own atmosphere, and this is no exception. The sense is of an industrial-scale site, where the wide runway leans upwards insistently towards the horizon. Concorde stands to the left at the far end, nose pointed to the runway like a silent sentinel, and on the sloping hill to the left of that, and running all the way in parallel to the runway, is the Airbus production site with its huge factory sheds both old and modern. Opposite me in the distance, across the wide expanse of the airfield proper, are some large old hangars, one of which is to be preserved to house the Bristol Aero Collection. Next to it a new building is to be erected to house Concorde.
This whole site and its history is surely one of the most important in the development of British aviation technology. Sir George White, the Bristol magnate and entrepreneur whose vision and business acumen founded it all before the First World War should be better known, but as he declined to give his own name to the company and to the aeroplanes it made, preferring to name them after the city of Bristol itself, his name is unknown by the general public.
This site impresses as a whole, and speaks as a whole by its visual layout and its scale. The line of connection between production and flight is clear to me as I stand here, taking it in. But already a tide of new housing appears on a rise at the far side of the airfield, beyond the designated hangar reprieved for the museum. When that tide breaks, it will overrun the grass, the concrete runways, and even that take-off point to my far left where the pilots, my Dad included, took their new aircraft into the beyond. For the future there will be an Aerospace Heritage Centre, housing an important collection of archives and exhibits. But it will be cut off by that sea of housing from the living production site on the hill. The wholeness and integrity of this site will be lost for ever. I laud the building of a new Centre to remember the past, but I can’t help lamenting the loss of the reality as it passes away.